Irish as it gets…

Irish as it gets…

Ireland has a lot to offer in the way of lessons about the intersection of food soveriegnty and empire-building, but she also has much magic, mirth, and devotion to the ingredients of home. While other peasant cultures are colorful and spicy, Ireland’s unique gift was the juxtaposition of salty sea air and arguably the best grass in the world. Hence, legendary cattle and dairy. So, the basic ingredients of much Irish cuisine are white in color, and rooted in the devotional ways of tending the family cow. Because of the extraordinary quality of the raw milk, the foods may be white, but are anything but bland.

Darina Allen, commonly known as “The Julia Child of Ireland”, has written several books that have brought much joy to my table and garden. While very wordly and modern, Darina is also very much rooted iin the old ways and traditions of Ireland, using raw milk from her own pastured cows, eggs gathered from free ranging chickens, foraging for wild herbs, mushrooms and hedgerow fruits.

About this bread, she says, “In our household of nine children, Mummy made this bread virtually very day of her life, well into her 80’s. She always had a light hand at baking. Whevever we were, her bread was on of the things that we looked forward to when we came home for a few days. So many happy memories are made at the kitchen table.”

And what could be more fitting than to, on this day of celebrating Ireland, to bake a simple, inexpensive bread with instructions calling for blessing the bread, and letting the fairies out? However you celebrate, highly recommend you spend a minute learning about and reflecting upon the Irish “Troubles.”  Spoiler: It was more than a crop failure. And then, do what the Irish have always done and get on wtih keeping on and making merry with what you’lve got.

St. Patrick’s Day blessings to you – “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig dhuit!”

Mummy’s Brown Soda Bread, Darina Allen, “Forgotten Skills of Cooking” p199

 

Mummy's Brown Soda Bread

Darina Allen is often called the Julia Child of Ireland. What could be more Irish than her Mother's brown soda bread?
Prep Time 15 minutes
Servings 1 large loaf

Ingredients
  

  • 2 cups White Whole Wheat King Arthur White Whole Wheat works well
  • 2 cups All Purpose Flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda sifted
  • 1-1/2 - 2 cups buttermilk

Instructions
 

  • Preheat the oven to 450°F.
  • Mix flour in a large, wide bowl, then add the salt and baking soda. Lift the flour up with your fingers to distribute the ingredients evenly. 
  • Make a well in the center and pour in 1-1/2 cups of the buttermilk. With your fingers stiff and outstretched like a claw, stir in a circular movement from the center to the outside of the bolt in ever increasing concentric circles. When you reach the outside of the bowl seconds later, the dough is made. (Should it still be dry, add the remaining 1/2 cup buttermilk and distribute).
  • Sprinkle a little flour on the countertop. Place the dough onto the flour. (Fill the bowl with cold water now so it will be easy to wash later.) Wash and dry your hands to make it easier to handle the dough.
  • Sprinkle a little flour onto your hands. Gently tidy the ball of dough tucking the edges underneath with the inner edge of your hands. Pat the dough gently with your fingers to flatten it slightly into a found loaf about 1-1/2” thick. Slide one hand underneath, and with your other hand on top, transfer the dough to a baking sheet. 
  • Cut a deep cross into the bead (this is called “blessing the bread”) and then prick it in the center of each of the four sections to “let the fairies out.” There’s also a tactical reason for doing this - the last part of the loaf to bake fully is the center, so cutting the cross opens out the center during cooking, allowing the heat to penetrate more evenly. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 400°F and cook for a further 15 minutes. Turn the bread upside down and cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until cooked (the bottom should sound hollow when tapped). Cool on a wire rack.

Rashers, homemade brown soda bread slathered with butter, and pastured eggs ☘️

 

Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice traditions and magical tales and rituals come from all corners of the world. I enjoy reading about all of them, but mimicking the rituals of peoples exotic to me feels strange, and does not really feel like a receptive mindset for the significance of an important marker of time in my own real life. 

Fire, attention, cleansing, making space, seasonal decoration, silence, spending time with nature, and ritual foods feel more fitting and less forced. Seed cake, while not exactly Yule specific, does feel like a suitable choice for the here and now. 

Today, in the US, grocery bakery goods, frozen cakes, and cake mixes with canned frostings are what we imagine for “cake”.  Light, fluffy, very sweet, often almost gummy, mostly crowned with sugary vegetable shortening frosting and intense artificial coloring and extracts.

Europe however, has retained more of their historic connections to food, and tends towards more dense, heavy baked goods flavored more often from nature than laboratories. Seed cake is one such cake you will not often find in the US.  One reason is because it’s texture is dependent upon a certain inefficient manner of architecting the ingredients.  It’s joy, like that of many British and Irish foods, is dependent upon the sheer exceptional quality of the simple ingredients – pastured eggs, homemade butter from the well-fed family cow, and local flour not readily available or “affordable” in modern times. 

Expensive and/or unavailable indeed when measured with our American focus on efficiency and productivity. I wonder though, if my ingredients cost more errands and money, yet also are important nutrients in their own right instead of a guilt-inducing dietary derailment of artificial junk guaranteed to make me feel ill, which is more expensive? 

I love everything about this cake, though I did dial up the fancy a little by pouring syrup over the hot cake, which makes me love it more, and I enjoy eating it with a schmear of good butter.

It is substantial, filling, and the ingredients are not without calories or fat, but are also nutrient dense. There is sugar, which is always going to be a conundrum, and for which I have no natural solution other than moderation. Since the cake is filling in a nutritionally satisfying way, moderation is naturally easier. 

Anyway, this is a really nice tradition to bring into all your winter weeks, not just for Solstice, though in the day, it would be a luxurious choice during months when eggs and butter were scarce. Like now, which is why such cakes in December are so celebratory.

I happen to be rich in pastured eggs at the moment, so, bring on the hobbit-y cakes!

Darina Allen's Seed Cake

Adapted from Darina Allen's wonderful book, "Forgotten Skills of Cooking."
Servings 8

Equipment

  • ` Round cake pan 7” and 3” deep Size matters; a standard loaf pan works well also

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 Cup Butter Room Temp
  • 3/4 Cup superfine sugar Domino's Golden Cane works well
  • 3 Chicken Eggs Pastured if possible
  • 1/2 tsp Pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Cups All purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 TBS milk or water
  • 1 TBS caraway seeds optional

Optional Glaze

  • 3 TBS Grand Marnier Brandy or whiskey can be substituted
  • 2 tsp water
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 TBS butter

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease your baking pan with butter and flour. 
  • Sift the flour and baking powder together. 
  • In a separate bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter first, then add the sugar, and continue whipping until light and fluffy. Do not rush this, or combine the steps, it does make a difference to the texture of the finished cake. (In the day this was done by massaging by hand the warmth of your hands creaming the butter faster, and supposedly producing a lighter cake.)
  • Whisk the eggs and vanilla extract together, and gradually add to the whipped butter and sugar mixture. Mix well.
  • Gradually fold in the flour, taking care to not over-beat. Darina Allen calls the desired texture “dropping consistency.” It will be heavy and stiff, but should not be crumbly. Gently mix in the caraway seeds. Add the milk, liquor or water only if the batter is too dry. 
  • Fill into the prepared baking pan, do not worry of it is lumpy, it will spread into the pan as the batter warms in the oven. 
  • Bake 50 - 60 minutes, taking care to not overtake, which will toughen the texture. To make the glaze, simply warm the glaze ingredients gently in a saucepan until sugar is completely dissolved- do not boil. Pour over hot cake and let cool in the pan.
  • Remove from the oven, pour the glaze over the top if using, and allow to cool in the pan.
“Lucy Light; The Shortest Day & The Longest Night!”

“Lucy Light; The Shortest Day & The Longest Night!”

St. Lucy’s Feast Day is celebrated December 13, though since Gregorian calendar reform, the feast day no longer lands on the eve of Winter Solstice as it once did, so the focus on light may feel a little puzzling at first.

I find St. Lucy’s Feast to be a nice advent to Winter Solstice, reminding me to pay attention and  give presence to the significance and power of the shortest day & longest night. Though the worst of winter lies just ahead, the significance of knowing the days are growing longer is a huge lifter of spirit, and truly a yearly event worth celebrating.

To mark a feast day with many food references to sunshine and magic, what could call to mind sunshine more than yellow corn cookies in the shape of the sun? Simple, gluten-free, and virtuous while still being delightful and celebratory.  Plus, simple, earthy, and unfussy.

I am all for a category of sweets that is regular part of a nutrient dense, locally sourced everyday diet, not a shameful guilt-inducing lack of discipline, how about you?

Masa Zaletti (Cornmeal Cookies)

Not-too-sweet but perfectly delicious Italian cornmeal cookies. Vegetarian, gluten free. From my tattered-and-stained favorite whole grains cookbook, "Whole Grains For A New Generation" by Liana Krissoff.
Servings 28 cookies

Ingredients
  

  • 1/3 cup dried currants
  • 1-1/2 cups masa harina
  • 1 cup raw fine yellow cornmeal
  • Pinch salt
  • 10 TBS unsalted butter melted
  • 3 large egg yolks beaten
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • Grated zest of 1 large lemon

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 375° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  • Put the currants in a bowl and cover with hot water, let soak until soft.
  • Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the masa marina, yellow cornmeal, and salt. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the butter.
  • In a medium bowl, whist together the egg yolks, sugar, baking soda, and lemon zest. Pour the mixture into the masa marina mixture and stir to combine. Drain the currants, reserving the soaking water; add the currants to the dough and knead gently in the bowl with your hands until the dough is thoroughly combined, sprinkling in up to 4 TBS of the currant soaking liquid little at a time to make a dough that holds together when you squeeze it.
  • Scoop up a rounded tablespoon-size chunk of dough and squeeze it into a ball; flatten it between your palms to make a 1/4-inch thick round and place it on the prepared baking sheet. (Or, drop the batter onto the cookie sheet and use a decorative cookie stamp to make it festive.)
  • Repeat with the remaining dough, arranging cookies 1" apart. Bake until golden brown at the edges and firm in the centers, about 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through so they brown evenly.
  • Let cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool.
What to do with a local mushroom share?  Pan-Cooked Mushrooms recipe…

What to do with a local mushroom share? Pan-Cooked Mushrooms recipe…

How great is it that locally raised mushrooms are a focus of local producers now, and they are easily found at farmer’s markets and as add-ons to CSA shares? Mushrooms are delicate though, and prone to mold, so a method to extend their usefulness helps make the most of your fungi.

I love this little appreciated, kind-of-plain book I picked up long ago, and many of my basic kitchen ways are based upon things I learned here. Sadly out of print, and probably often overlooked in favor of more visually beautiful photo books, but if you are truly wanting to learn some foundational kitchen skills and habits, I highly recommend this one. Available used online, for cheap, so it is a good one when the budget is tight.

In the Light Basics cookbook, Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for pan-cooked mushrooms gives you dense little chunks of deep, earthy flavor, which works for pretty much all mushroom varieties.

I make this recipe as soon as I get my mushrooms, and save them in a jar to add later to salads, greens, accompany steaks, pizzas, omlettes, saucy meats, pasta.  Really, what isn’t made instantly richer and fancier with some herby, garlicky, flavorful chunks of mushrooms cooked in booze? 

King Trumpet and Nameko Mushrooms, fresh rosemary, garlic and thyme.

Personally, I can’t resist nicking them straight from the jar, so preserving them is rarely a problem, but if you find yourself with an abundant haul, this recipe is a good way to extend their life – simply put in a sterilized jar and top with olive oil. Make sure your shrooms are submerged – the flavored oil when the mushrooms are finished is a lovely ingredient in its own right, too. 

Because the moisture has been released, and there is salt and olive oil, your mushrooms are intensified in flavor and much less vulnerable to mold.

Pan-cooked Mushrooms

Deliciously savory mushrooms cooked with a little wine, garlic, and herbs
Servings 4 generous

Ingredients
  

  • 1-1/2 pounds mushrooms
  • 1/2 tsp salt or to your taste
  • 1/2 cup dry white or red wine brandy, or vermouth
  • 1-1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp dried
  • 1-1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 3/4 tsp crumbled dried
  • 1-1/2 TBS olive oil
  • 2 - 4 large garlic cloves peeled and minced or pressed
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 TBS chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

Instructions
 

  • Trim away the tough stemps of the mushrooms or remove the from portabellos, for regular mushrooms just cut the very ends of the stems off. Rinse briefly in cod water to remove any sand and shake or wipe dry with paper towels. Cut into thick slices, halves, or for sall shrooms, leave whole. If using a clumpy variety like oysters, tear in half or cut away the bottom of the stem and separate.
  • Heat skillet over medium-high heat, add the mushrooms and salt. Watch carefully, the mushrooms will soon begin to release liquid. Stir and cook until the liquid has evaporated, which can be anywhere from 5 - 15 minutes, depending on the moisture content and type of mushroom. Stir in the wine, thyme, and rosemary. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the wine has evaporated, 5 - 10 minutes. Add the olive oil and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color and the dish smells very fragrant, about 5 minutes.
  • Season with pepper, stir in the parsley, adjust salt if needed, serve.
No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

I don’t have much time, or kitchen space for elaborate preserving projects anymore. So, I have to be really selective and spend my time making the one tomato-y thing that will be quick, flexible, but still remind me in the heart of January that the dark, frozen nights will again be soft and desk, with tomatoes, still warm from the garden. See, that connection to my own Pennsylvania summer is a real spirit lifter – one which canned tomatoes from the supermarket just cannot match.

Elimination thinking makes my decision super-easy; this uncooked tomato sauce, straight from the freezer tastes exactly like summer,  is compact and efficient to store in my freezer, and quick and easy to use in lots of ways later. 

 

Before beginning, I’d like to make this one plea: Resist the urge to chef this one up until you’ve made it once exactly as it is. Yes, it’s a VERY simple, plain recipe, but therein lies the charm. The simplicity allows the special summertime quality of the tomatoes to shine which is exactly why I love it so much. You can add herbs and spices when you use it later if you wish. Oh, and this sauce plain is beautiful with fresh mozzarella… and allows a bit of good olive oil to really shine.

Here’s a link to the more specific recipe.  It makes four servings to be eaten right away but to preserve larger quantities for freezing, simply repeat as many times as you like ( I just figure out how many pounds of tomatoes I have and work it backwards), throw the milled batches together into one large colander, drain over a large bucket then freeze the concentrated sauce in single serving portions.

 

The split skins will peel right away – then toss into your food mill. I use a Roma and run the tomatoes through two or three times to extract every last drop… If you don’t have a food mill, just do your best to skin, seed and chop as finely as you can. The texture won’t be exactly the same, but don’t let that stop you – it’s still going to be awesome.

 

The tomatoes after processing. Add kosher salt and ladle into your cheesecloth lined colander. Maybe you’re not like me with large pieces of cheesecloth lying around. Not to worry, you can use a simple cotton dish towel or pillow case but be prepared for it to be forever stained. I toss my clean cheesecloth into the boiling water for a few minutes before using. Line a colander with the cheesecloth and you’re ready to pour in your tomato mixture. Place the colander over a large bowl or bucket and drain for at least a couple of hours or overnight

 

For me,  one cup portions in freezer bags is the perfect size. One cup feeds two with plenty of  leftovers for the next few days.  Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on my recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough. A word of warning: a little of this sauce goes a long way. I use 2 or 3 Tablespoons to dress a serving of pasta. Really.

Fill your freezer bags, squeeze out any air, and stack flat on a baking sheet or plate to freeze. Onse frozen stiff, the packages can be stacked upright in a container, and are easy to see and access in your freezer, and take little space. 

 

Pouches of finished sauce, in my freezer stash. I freeze this in one cup portions in small freezer bags to use all winter. Thaw it in the bag and gently spoon over cooked pasta tossed with olive oil or butter. If you must heat the sauce, simply warm a little olive oil in a sauce pan and stir in the sauce until just warmed.

 

Because you are straining away most of the water, the volume will be greatly reduced.  I started with a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of tomatoes, and ended up with about 5 cups of sauce. This will vary based on the water content of the tomatoes and the amount of time you leave them drain.

Use your sauce to make summer-fresh Margarita pizzas, toss in the crock pot or dutch oven for a stew or braise, soup, with a pot of beans, anything that can use some fresh tomato flavor. Since the star of this project is the tomato, I wouln’t bother with thick walled, tough-skinned, weak flavored commodity varieties. This is meant as a celebration of the flavor of local, peak-of=freshness, sloppy, flavorful old-fashioned and heirloom varieties.  

 

Home made pasta, uncooked fresh tomato sauce frozen from last summer’s harvest and some good quality parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!

 

Also, when you’ve finished making this sauce, especially if you made a bunch for freezing, you’ll have lots of nutritious tomato essence (the water left after straining the tomato solids for the sauce) left.

  • Base for Bloody Marys
  • Braising liquid
  • Reduction for intensely tomato flavored sauces
  • Added flavoring for beer or vodka
  • Base for gazpacho or cocktail sauce
  • Poaching liquid for seafood, shrimp, calamari or lobster
  • Dressing for fresh oysters
  • Marinade for white fish
  • Vinaigrette mix-in
  • Liquid for cooking rice or grains
  • Refreshing chilled beverage served over ice, with basil

 

Or, simply use it in place of any liquid next time you make stock, bread, rice, bulgur, barley or risotto. These are kitchen basics you know you’re going to do anyway, so why not add a little free flavor & nutrient booster?

An icy glass of tomato essence…. yummy and refreshing straight up, and so many great uses in coctails…

The most complicated part of this approach is using a food mill if you have never used one. It makes for a really nice texture and removes the peel and seeds. A food mill is not necessary though, and this sauce will be just as tasty finely chopped by hand.

If you could only do one, what would your single tomato preserving project be? 

A steamy cuppa Valentine Love  ♥️

A steamy cuppa Valentine Love ♥️

Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.

Today is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day.

Here in Pennsylvania,  we’ve been very fortunate here with the mildness of our winter so far  – unlike those of you  suffering some real damage and hardship, we’re mostly just inconvenienced and fatigued.  The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.

I nixxed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off the package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. At home, it’s not really any more work, and the results are so worth it. Once you’ve spoiled yourself, you’ll want to keep a pint jar in your fridge at all times.

But then, one day, this really lovely post from Molly at Remedial Eating stopped me in my tracks. Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did. This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.

Hot Chocolate Base (Ganache)
Yield: 2 generous cups ganache (enough for 2 dozen+ mugs of hot cocoa)

This makes a light ganache (1:1), scoop-able straight from the fridge.  For firm truffles and heartier frostings, a 2:1 chocolate:cream ratio gives greater body and intensity.  FYI.

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, if possible)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (3 – 4 oz. bars)

Snap chocolate bars into a large, heat-proof bowl.  Heat cream over medium, until the first bubble breaks, then remove from heat and pour over chocolate shards.  Let sit 5 minutes, then whisk gently to combine, 1-2 minutes.  Pour into jar, and refrigerate, up to 1 month.

To Make Hot Cocoa:

Heat milk (2% or whole), as much as you want, over medium heat, until steaming.  (Alternatively, for one mug, microwave).  Add ganache to hot milk: I use 1 heaping tablespoon per 8 ounces of milk, though there are those under my roof who argue 2 tablespoons are far superior.  And no, I don’t measure.  Eyeball it.  Stir ganache into hot milk until dissolved, 10-15 seconds, taste, and add more, if desired.  Pour into mugs, top as desired (whipped cream, marshmallows), wrap fingers ’round, and give thanks for winter.

Who am I kidding?  1-2 TBS? No way. Try 3, or even 4!

So, if you’re still struggling for not-too-big, not-too-small DIY gift ideas, here you go – you still have time. A nice jar of homemade chocolate ganache for a steamy cup of ready-made love for your beloved.

And, if heating milk sounds like too much work, there’s always spoon truffles. Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!